The importance of evolving in education

This week my parents introduced me to a new show on Netflix called Ugly Delicious, which stars five-star chef David Chang as he travels the world and introduces the audience to various culture’s foods while simultaneously exploring how those foods can help to connect and bring people together. I’ve only watched two episodes, but from what I’ve seen it’s fantastic.  One of the episodes in particular, “BBQ”, contained a quote from a Tennessee pitmaster that really resonated with me, especially in regards to teaching:

“If you want to be one of the best, then you need to be evolving and understand that you don’t know everything.”

What an incredibly insightful piece of advice that could actually be applied to basically any endeavor. As far as education goes, however, it’s critical that teachers are constantly evolving and honing their craft through trial and error because our students are so dynamic from year to year.  We cannot become complacent and continue to teach in the ways that we always have because that’s what works best for us.  Remember, it’s not about us; it’s about those twenty-something kids sitting in front of you each and every day.

The end of the year is an excellent time for reflection. While we have a breather, it’s important to think about our classes this year and revisit some of our pedagogical decisions. Like many of my colleagues, I am constantly scouring social media for inventive ways to engage students and present new material.  In the spirit of reflection, below are four new strategies that I used this year in the classroom on a semi-regular basis that I thought were the greatest additions to my repertoire:

  1. EdPuzzle

If your students have easy access to computers, or better yet your classroom is 1:1 with technology, then you’ve got to try using EdPuzzle to introduce new information to students. In a nutshell, you can take any video on youtube, load it into Edpuzzle and imbed questions throughout it so that as students are not just watching the video, but they are interacting with it as well. Edpuzzle already has tons of videos that teachers have created on any number of subjects that are currently available for use.  If you have your classes loaded up in Google Classroom, you can push these videos out as assignments and add them in as quick participation grades. The icing on the cake: all of this is free! I primarily used EdPuzzle this year before we began learning new concepts; essentially, I “flipped” my classroom, which really enhanced our discussions during the mini-lessons when we would cover these topics in greater detail because my students were able to bring some background knowledge to the discourse.

2. Co-constructive writing

Co-constructive writing is when the entire class creates a piece of writing together, with the students offering up ideas and the teacher serving simultaneously as both facilitator and typer.  My classes co-constructed argument essays after reading an informational text, and we also rewrote the ending of the Tell-Tale Heart from the perspective of one of the officers. I kept myself out of the writing process completely, and merely typed, revised and retyped what my students were saying, per their direction.  The kids really benefited from hearing their classmates’ thinking during the writing process, and they took full ownership over the task as they told me what to keep and what to get rid of from the writing.  As my students got more comfortable with this method of writing, I allowed them to co-construct pieces of writing in smaller groups.

3. One-minute book talks

While this strategy is incredibly simple, it’s highly effective. Students have one-minute to talk with a partner about a topic.  There are only three rules: 1) students must talk for at least 10 seconds, 2) students cannot talk over a minute, and 3) the partner cannot speak at all during this time.  I generally used this task at the end of our independent reading chunks as a way to help my students internalize what they had just read from their choice reading books, but it could easily be used with any content area. Obviously, it’s always good to give our students opportunities to talk in class, especially on-task talking (especially, especially when they are 7th graders).  But what I really love about this strategy is that it teaches students how to be good listeners, which is a skill that practically everyone needs to work on from time to time.

4. Vocabulary taboo

Vocabulary taboo might have been my favorite 15 minutes of class each week.  I usually used it on a Thursday as a review game since my students typically took vocabulary quizzes on Fridays.  Basically, you take notecards and write the vocabulary words on them in the middle in large print, preferably with a sharpie. Then, using a pencil, write two to three synonyms to that word on the same side of the card.  Explain to the kids that  their goal is to get their classmates to say the word on the card without using ANY of the words on the card.  If they did say one of those words, then their team loses a point. The goal is to get your team to say as many of the words as possible in a minute (I apologize for the redundancy to anyone who has played the game Taboo before).  As the year progressed, I would just keep adding the new word cards to this same stack until we had an impressive collection of words that we could review at any time. Taboo forces students to think outside the box with a sense of urgency.  Not only is this an amazing way to review and refresh academic vocabulary with students, it’s hilarious to observe.

I’ll be using these aforementioned strategies next year as well, but as the BBQ pitmaster from Tennessee indicated, I must continue to evolve, so I’ll have to find some new ways in which to engage my students with content.

What about everyone else? What were some innovative methods that you incorporated into your lessons this year for the first time?

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Five things I know for sure about most middle school students

In less than a month, I will complete my sixth year of teaching.  The first two of those years were in a 10th grade World Literature classroom, and the last four I have been teaching 7th grade English Language Arts.  When I told my high school colleagues that I would be moving down to middle school, the most common reaction usually involved the phrase “You’re crazy!”  Over the past four years, whenever I tell someone that I teach 7th grade, I’m either told that I’m “brave”, or that they couldn’t imagine being around that many 13-year-olds all day.

I recently listened to Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy podcast titled Eight Things I Know For Sure about (Most) Middle School Kids, and it got me thinking about the little intricacies and idiosyncrasies that I have decoded and come to understand about my students.   I wanted to share these thoughts in an attempt to connect with my fellow middle school teacher brethern, or possibly to provide some insights into this age group for any potential middle school teachers.  Without further adieu, here are some things that I KNOW for sure about middle schoolers:

“I hate your class!”   If you teach in a middle school, then you have invariably heard this phrase either muttered under a student’s breath; or, it’s been hurled right at you with reckless abandon.  As both a teacher and a human, one’s first response is to take offense to such an aggressive statement and jump on the defensive. Let me give you some advice: don’t.  Any kid that has worked up enough moxie to shout out such a brash criticism is clearly dealing with something outside of the class or school that is impacting their emotional stability.  They don’t hate your class; they hate whatever is disrupting their lives at the moment and they don’t know how to confront it, so the easiest way to vent is to target a scapegoat, i.e., your class.  Whenever a student has offered me this review, I typically respond with a quick and semi-genuine “Thank you”, which I have found usually diffuses the situation (diffusing situations is a major part of being a middle school teacher).

“This class is boring.”  If a kid says this to you, then take it as a badge of honor; I know I do.  Any student who tells you that your class is boring is not actually referring to the lessons and content of the class; what they really mean is that in your class they don’t get to talk off topic and joke around with their friends any time they please. Also, they’re not allowed to leave their seat whenever the moment strikes them.  “This class is boring” is code for “You have solid classroom management skills”, and you will usually only hear it from students that historically are more likely to push the boundaries of the classroom expectations.  I have students that are completely wrapped up in the independent reading books that they are reading in my class, so much so that they will take them into the halls with them when we take restroom breaks, and yes, these same students have told me that my class is boring.  Once again, don’t take anything a middle schooler says personally.

They need to move some during class.  My favorite professional learning sessions are always the ones that tend to be more interactive.  I’m not nearly as engaged in an hour long session in which I’m in my seat for the entire 60 minutes, and our students aren’t either.  Middle school students are like overgrown elementary kids with bodies that are growing and surging with hormones.  The boys literally cannot be still for extended periods of time.  Plan for 5 to 8 minutes of  class time that will allow the kids to be free of their chairs so that they can stretch out and move about.  I’ve been known to hold “Rocks, Paper, Scissors” tournaments after our independent reading time as a way to get the kids’ blood pumping again before we move on to our next activity.  These tournaments last for 2 to 3 minutes, and they serve as excellent brain breaks for these kids.  Another strategy I’ve used a lot this year to get my students out of their chairs is at the end of the class, I have everyone stand up with their composition notebooks.  I then play a song on the overhead, and they can walk, dance or slink about the room.  When the music stops, they share one of their responses to something that they read during our work session.  When the music starts again, they move, and when it stops, they share again.  My kids absolutely love closing out class this way, and some of my toughest kids will be dancing their hearts out to Justin Beiber between sharing sessions.

Don’t take anything they say personally.  Remember earlier in this post when I encouraged you not to take things personally?  Yeah, that’s kind of a biggie if you want to survive in a middle school atmosphere.  You see, these students’ brains are not fully formed, so they do not yet have the development that allows them to control some their impulses.  The result: they can say some rather rude things to each other and to you.  I just try to reteach and dialogue with them when they same something offensive.  I’ve had huge success from just asking them to put themselves in my shoes and consider how I felt about whatever they said.  It’s amazing how giving them a little perspective can help them understand the power of their words and actions.  If you’re having a tough day or you don’t have time to explain to a middle schooler why they shouldn’t say how amazed they are by how old YOU ARE, just give them a quick “Thank you” and move on.

Use a lot of self-deprecating humor.  Middle school students are the fragilest of fragile.  They have zero tolerance for commentary on their appearance or intelligence.  This is why they can be so quick to make fun of others at this age.  But you know what will really get them eating out of the palm of your hands?  Make fun of yourself!  I do it all the time.  I routinely act like I’ve never heard of wildly popular rap songs in front of my kids, even though I probably listened to said song 10 minutes earlier on the drive into work.  They love it!  There’s something about being lame while not knowing you’re lame that they find hilarious.  Last year, I pretended in front of a class that I thought when they said something was “lit” that they were commenting on the lighting in the room.  The laughter from my class could be heard from across the hall.  However, my relationships with those kids grew tremendously because they would take any free moment to try to teach me things that they felt I must know regarding slang and pop culture.  I became sort of a project for them, and they entered my class with a positive attitude and ready to learn.

Fellow middle school teachers – what are some things that you know for sure about middle schoolers?

 

All students need to read diverse books

“I’d never read a book on my own before this year. I didn’t really like reading. I just finished my 4th book of the year in Mr. Smith’s class, and I kinda like reading now.”

-one of my second period students speaking to another teacher on my hall

A culture of choice independent reading is ingrained into my classroom, from the extensive library of books on my shelves to the daily book talks that my students and I give to one another.  Students in my class get the first 10 minutes of every class to read from a book of their own choosing, and long story short, they read A TON more over the course of the year than their peers in neighboring classrooms.

I work in a Title I public school in which nearly 90% of the student population is either African-American or Latino, so my classroom library primarily contains books with authors and characters that look like my students.  My kids deserve to see themselves in the texts that they read.  My first period reading support class is currently reading All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a book that deals with the social injustices that exist for African-Americans in their interactions with law enforcement. My Language Arts classes are currently reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers, a novel that examines the prejudices that remain in the justice system and how that system works against people of color. I supplement these books with informational articles about relevant issues and people: Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Stefon Clark, etc.

I have various students that are reading or have read The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  I’ve read these books as well and held small group discussions with my students that have enjoyed them, too.  These books deal with uncomfortable topics like white privilege and police brutality.  We talk about these things. I acknowledge to my students that I understand the number of benefits I enjoy in this country simply because I am a white man.  We lament how unfair that is and we talk about ways that we can make meaningful changes in regards to these shortcomings in our society.

My girlfriend teaches History at the elite private school in our town, and recently she learned that the 9th graders at her school were reading both The Hate U Give and Dear Martin.  Over 80% of her school is comprised of affluent white students, and that’s exactly who needs to be reading THESE books.  When my students read those aforementioned texts, they get angry and frustrated, probably because many of the issues in the books are realities for them and their families.  However, for these private school students, reading a book from the perspective of an African-American female teenager (The Hate U Give) is most likely a point of view that they have never considered.  Trying to understand what it’s like to be discriminated against for no reason other than the color of a person’s skin (Dear Martin) is a situation that your average white private schooler has not encountered before.

The fact that the students at my girlfriend’s school are reading these books is uplifting.  It gives me hope for the future. It makes me want to get these types of books in the hands of white high school students across the country as quickly as possible so that they can see and feel what it’s like to be a marginalized person in this country.  If we want to continuing progressing on Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe towards justice, then we must have discussions about social injustices in every school, and not just in the ones in which the students doing the talking are also members of the oppressed group.

Experimenting with restorative justice

While my students were working in small groups on Thursday, two students in nearby groups got into a verbal altercation that sounded like it was getting heated quickly.  One of the students escalated things by telling the other student that he would “beat his ass”.

The first-year teacher version of myself would most likely not have known how to handle this situation, if for anything other than lack of experience. I might have acted like I didn’t hear what was said and moved closer to the students; or, I may have given both a verbal warning and left it at that.

The second-year teacher version of myself most likely would have removed the student that cursed from class immediately to quell the situation.  I probably wouldn’t have engaged in a dialogue with the punished student other than telling him which room he needed to go to in order to complete his assignment.

I will be done with my sixth year of teaching in a little over a month, and here is how I handled this particular situation:

I had both boys stop working and come into the hall with me.  I began by asking Gabriel, who was on the receiving end of the cursing, to explain to me what he said that got Phillip (the one who made the threat) so riled up.  He told me that he was joking around with another boy at Phillip’s table, and that he didn’t mean any harm by it. I pointed out to Gabriel that Phillip was clearly upset by what he had said.  Gabriel acknowledged the same and apologized to Phillip.

I then turned to Phillip and explained to him that his aggressive tone probably put Gabriel on the defensive.  Phillip agreed and promptly apologized to his classmate.  By the time I sent each of them back into class to finish working, they were both smiling (aside: I did tell Phillip before he re-entered class that the next time he curses like that I will be writing an office referral).  Crisis averted.

As I walked back into the room, I was visibly on cloud nine.  I have been listening to multiple podcasts lately dealing with restorative justice in schools, and I realized that I had just implemented a form of it in the hallway outside my classroom. By simply getting each student to consider the perspective of the other student, I facilitated an interaction between them that resulted in them calming down and squashing whatever beef had sprouted between them. Not only that, but each of them was able to save face in front of their classmates since the conversation occurred outside the room, and my relationship with each student instantly became a tiny bit stronger.

I’ve been trying to incorporate more meaningful socioemotional development into the lives of the students that I teach this year by getting them to consider the point of view of the people around them as well as how their actions might be impacting others.  Last week, it was my turn on the 7th grade hallway to host “silent lunch”, a punishment for students that continue to not meet classroom expectations after multiple warnings.  In the past, when I’ve had silent lunch in my room, I spread the 5 or 6 students out around the room and watched them like a hawk for the full 20 minutes.  If a student talked or made a disturbance, I would add another day of silent lunch.  However, the same students continued to be in silent lunch for the entire year, which means (A) it wasn’t a very effective consequence, and (B) the students weren’t learning anything to help them improve their behavior.

I decided to mix things up a bit last week in silent lunch.  I had all 6 students each day sit at the big table at the front of my room so that we could eat our lunch together, like a family.  I started off by asking each kid their favorite color and then their favorite desert in an attempt to discover what commonalities we shared. Then I moved onto the tougher questions: why are you here? Who was involved in your incident? How do you think they felt during the incident?  What can you do to improve if this incident potentially comes up again?

In short, the kids were confused, mainly because I wasn’t making them be silent. Also, I think they thought that I was looking to use the questions to corner them into a “gotcha” moment.  However, once they realized that we were more or less just analyzing each of their particular situations, they really opened up and responded honestly.  Will all of these kids stay out of silent lunch for the final 6 weeks of school?  Probably not.  However, I’m certain that they are now more conscious of the fact that their actions do impact others after considering the perspectives of the teachers and students involved in their episodes.

A teacher with 29 years of experience told me during my first year of teaching that teachers get 50% better at classroom management every year, and while I cannot prove it quantitatively, I kind of think he’s right.  As a Language Arts teacher, I’m constantly imploring my students to ponder the various perspectives of the characters in the books that we read; I’m just now learning that the same strategy can be used when reteaching expectations to our students as well.

Taking an optimistic mindset into Professional Learning days

I won’t see my students tomorrow because our district has a designated Professional Learning (PL) day.  I can already hear the collective groans from teachers everywhere.  A good number of teachers view PL as a waste of time; something that is taking away from the smorgasbord of tasks that teachers already have piled high on their plates.  However, in my current district, the PL has been phenomenal, and I have gotten a number of wonderful strategies and ideas that have really shifted how I teach Language Arts to my 7th graders, several of which are listed below.

Three years ago, a University of Georgia professor gave me a copy of Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller at a PL session.  That booked totally transformed how I teach reading to my students.  Before reading Miller’s text, my classes read four novels a year as a class (or one per unit), with everyone reading the same book.  Today, my kids are all reading different books of their own choice for the first 10 minutes of every class period.  Needless to say, my students are reading WAY more than before and they are learning to explore various genres of books on their own.  In addition, the majority of my students are forming a relationship with literacy that previously was not present.  We only have our students for a year, so it’s our job as teachers to help them make reading a lifelong habit, and that can only be done if students learn how to take ownership of their reading lives.

Another instructional strategy that I took away from a PL that I have found to be highly effective in helping students master the concept of argumentative writing is the CSET strategy.  This technique shows the students how to craft an argumentative paragraph that contains a claim (C), a set-up that shows where this information is coming from (S), a piece of evidence from the text (E) and a tie-in (T) sentence that shows how their evidence supports their claim.  The CSET strategy can initially be taught to the students using cartoons, Pixar Shorts or New York Times Op-Docs to help them understand the basic structure.  Then, I can begin giving them CSET assignments that require them to support a claim based upon either our class novel or an informational text.  Because this strategy only requires the students to produce an effective paragraph, it doesn’t seem as daunting to them at first. However, once they master how to create one strong paragraph, I can challenge them to create another one that argues the same viewpoint. Eventually, students can produce multiple CSETs, and they are able to craft a well-organized argumentative essay with several reasons that all support a claim with valid textual evidence.

A final strategy that I have been using a lot this year comes from the text Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies (Beers, Probst), and guess what? I gleaned it from a PL day. When my students read informational texts, instead of just assigning a question set for them to answer when they finish, this year I have been applying a Notice & Note strategy and I have really seen a difference in how my students engage with nonfiction texts.  Before reading the text, we have a whole class discussion about how when we read or hear something that surprises or shocks us, it’s because we are usually learning something new. Then, while my students read a news article, they label three things that surprised or shocked them.  Once they finish, they confer with a partner or small group and review what surprised or shocked everyone.  The discussions that manifest from this one question are phenomenal to observe, and the students interaction with the text is at a much deeper level.  When we come together as a class to recap their observations, our whole group discussions are filled with rich and astute comments. At the end of class, students will typically write a short response that highlights one thing from the text that truly shocked them and why.  This strategy has definitely enhanced my students’ ability to identify central ideas in informational texts as well as their ability to pull out key details from the text.

A final blessing that I have gotten from PLs in my district is a host of educational apps that I have used regularly in my ELA classes.  Our school is 1:1 with computers, so it is imperative that I attempt to engage my students with 21st century tasks.  I’ve had students create oral arguments using Flipgrid, Youtube, Voki and Screencastify.  I’ve reinforced grammar concepts using NoRedInk. I’ve introduced new material to students using Edpuzzle. All of our classwork is pushed out to students using Google Classroom.  My exit tickets are often are done electronically via Linoit.  All of these aforementioned apps were presented to me in different PL sessions.

It’s certainly possible that I have been lucky by being in a district that values PL and provides us with strategies and tools that we can immediately take to the classroom, and other teachers elsewhere have not been as fortunate.  However, I also think there is a likelihood that teachers may be guilty of approaching PL days with a less than optimistic outlook.  Or, it could be a combination of the two. Either way, my advice to teachers everywhere is to head into the PL days with the expectation that you are going to be given something that can be applied to your classes.  I know that’s going to be my mindset tomorrow morning.